Reading Wheatley Compelled by Haneke (Part 1)

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

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What is the first question of Michael Haneke’s film Caché (2005)? According to Catherine Wheatley, in Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image (Berghahn 2009), the primary question we ask while screening a Haneke film, such as Caché, is “Succinctly put, the brutality of Haneke’s films prompts spectators to ask themselves a question which centres on two points of awareness. Why, they ask, is the director of this film doing this to me?” (31).

Wheatley reiterates this primary question in her conclusion:

Michael Haneke’s films offer their spectator both a warning and a lesson, but it is a lesson that each individual must learn for themself. As I have suggested at various points in this work, the central question that arises out of Haneke’s cinema is “Why is the director doing this to me, the spectator?” This question lies at the heart of Haneke’s ethical project of spectatorship, and the process of speculation that follows it constitutes the main goal of Haneke’s cinema. To answer it, we must not only question Haneke’s intentions, or the intentions of his films, but we must also question ourselves: our responsibilities to ourselves and to others in the world. (189)

In the end, Wheatley gives us a thought-provoking interpretation of the content and form of Caché (and a way to think through all of Haneke’s films), from a perspective grounded in a the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and (afterwards) Stanley Cavell:

Haneke’s initiation of us into moral spectatorship might have a very strong effect on how we watch a film. And while it may prevent us from pursuing the passive pleasures of mainstream narrative cinema (and television), the position of moral spectatorship that Haneke creates for the audience has its own rewards. For it teaches us freedom of consciousness, and allows us a position where we neither impose our own experiences on the film, nor allow film to impose itself on us. (184)

Haneke’s films position us as moral spectators because they provoke our desires and then provoke us to question our desires—whenever the director unveils what we desire to see and whenever the director veils what we desire to see. This dynamic of provocations pushes us to (re)consider our own relationship to the cinematic image, and, this combination of displeasure and complicity compels us to think and feel morally about what we have desired to see.

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While Wheatley’s account of our experience with Haneke’s films follows Kant toward freedom of consciousness and autonomous ethical reflexivity regarding feeling the imperative of doing one’s duty with regard to the cinematic experience, her analysis also opens the experience of Caché (and other Haneke films) to questions of a Levinasian concern over hospitality, testimony, and responsibility because of her eventual rejection of Kantian “action” for Cavellian “discernment.” (Wheatley recognizes film spectators cannot literally “act”—produce a moral output in the Kantian sense—but can better accept and strive to improve their moral understanding of the world in the Cavellian sense.) This increase in discernment and “refusal of flight from one’s ethical position in the world, is precisely,” she argues, “the endpoint that Haneke’s films strive towards” (10). Such an increase in discernment, in the refusal of flight, in the acceptance of the responsibility for one’s responsibility touches on the lines from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov where the narrator announces, “every one of us is responsible for everyone else in every way, and I most of all,” a reference of utmost importance for Levinas as he claims it illustrates how far ethics goes, how radically the call of the other that makes me who I am by making me uniquely responsible, “summons me without there being anyone to answer in my stead,” as he writes in “Truth of Discourse and Truth of Testimony” (102). It is almost as if the narrator of Dostoyevsky’s novel had just emerged from a double screening of Funny Games U.S. (2007) and Caché!

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In her move from Kant toward Cavell and his arguments concerning “moral discernment,” which emphasizes rational moral argument and perfectionism—developing discernment prior to acting—Wheatley signals a shift in thinking spectatorship in terms of recognition and engagement that coincidentally instigates a shift in thinking the filmic experience in terms of encounter and responsibility. Invoking Cavell on “moral discernment” with regard to the cinema also opens the conversation to Cavell’s earlier writings on film in The World Viewed, where, in one chapter, he discusses the magic at the origin of cinema:

How do movies reproduce the world magically? Not by literally presenting us with the world, but by permitting us to view it unseen. This is not a wish for power over creation (as Pygmalion’s was), but a wish not to need power, not to have to bear its burdens. It is, in this sense, the reverse of the myth of Faust. And the wish for invisibility is old enough. Gods have profited from it, and Plato tells it in Book II of the Republic as the Myth of the Ring of Gyges. In viewing films, the sense of invisibility is an expression of modern privacy or anonymity. It is as though the world’s projection explains our forms of unknownness and of our inability to know. The explanation is not so much that the world is passing us by, as that we are displaced from our natural habitation within it, placed at a distance from it. The screen overcomes our fixed distance; it makes displacement appear as our natural condition. (40-1)

What remains hidden, unseen, according to Cavell, is the viewer—who like Gyges—sees without being seen, knows without being known, and who, like Gyges, according to Levinas in “Truth of Disclosure and Truth of Testimony” and elsewhere, provides a figure for the secret evasion of responsibility, the refusal of the call of the other, the flight from one’s ethical position in the world. Thus, it is through Wheatley’s turn to Cavell that we might imagine a Levinasian perspective on the experience of Caché in particular and Haneke’s cinema in general.

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